I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited for preseason football as I have been this last week. As most of my friends know, I’m a die-hard Cleveland Browns fan… and it’s been hard to be a fan for this past decade. There are worse teams to have to suffer with – at least the Browns don’t suffer the chronic mismanagement that the Bengals do; Randy Lerner at least figured out that American Football is not something he knows well and hired Mike Holmgren to take the reins. Mike Brown has yet to figure that one out.
Anyway, preseason football. This is going to be a rough year for the Browns. Not only do we have a new head coach (and a rookie head coach at that), but we’re changing our offensive and defensive schemes as well, all during the year we had a labor lockout. This is not the kind of timing that will help us out – the lost offseason time was time that the team desperately needed to learn the new playbooks and get in sync with each other. So while I normally wouldn’t care during most preseason football, this year the preseason is a valuable indicator of the progress that our team is making.
After one preseason game, I have to say that I’m happy with what I’m seeing. We’ve had a mediocre defense these past couple of years, but the offense has usually been sub-par. Too many 3 and out series meant that by the time the 4th quarter rolled around, the defense was exhausted and we’d fold like a wet paper bag. Against Green Bay’s defense (minus two of their better corners), the Browns looked like they had a coherent offensive plan and implemented it well. McCoy spread the ball evenly amongst the receivers and some of our new guys showed some solid talent that will help them when the roster gets whittled down. Our problem of not scoring enough points might be starting to go away.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to judge much from a preseason game after the first quarter as to how the team as a whole will do. Backup QB Seneca Wallace didn’t look as solid as he did last year, and our defense was on-again/off-again in their consistency, especially Sheldon Brown. We don’t have a deep-threat receiver, which wouldn’t play to McCoy’s strengths much, but would probably be useful to have to open up some of the middle passing lanes and draw open the defense.
I have to say that I’m (relatively) optimistic for the season. Not only did we hold our own against one of the better teams in the league (albeit in preseason), but we did so without showing giant gaps. The Steelers secondary was weak against Rex Grossman of the Redskins (good for us since we’re shifting to a West Coast Offense), the Raven’s O-line leaked like a sieve when trying to stop the pass rush (6 sacks on the night, two against their first string O-line) which will give our young D-line some hope and opportunity when we play them twice late in the season, and the Bungles were utterly decimated by Detroit. No insults to Detroit, who I’ve seen take the past two or three seasons to rebuild their team into an ascending threat, but when you collapse like the Bengals did in a preseason game, it means that there are some big problems and a lot of your players aren’t on the same page. That bodes well for the opening game, which would be a great morale booster if we can win an opening game at home. I’ve seen too many seasons collapse after a couple of early losses and seeing the team become dejected, and it’d be nice to open with a win over a divisional opponent.
As it is now, I don’t think that 4-4 by mid-season is unreasonable. Wins are feasible over Cincinnati, Miami, Tennessee, Seattle, San Francisco, and Oakland, though whether we pull all of them out or not is another question. I think that wins against Indy and Houston are unlikely, and we’re going to have a rough end to our season with 4 of our last 5 games being against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. There are worse divisions to be playing against than the NFC West and the AFC South to give us a fairly weak strength of schedule, but I’ll be interested to see how it all comes together in the end.